‘Heritage’ as Past, Present, and Future


When we hear that word, it immediately conjures up images of past, of something that is left behind, immutable.  That is not to say that heritage is precluded from positive associations; indeed, a tangible sense of ‘heritage’ can lead to many positive developments. 

Although I feel the term ‘heritage language’ is useful in many respects, I have found myself wondering if perhaps it also engenders a sense of past that does not reflect the diffuse nature of language.  Or that it perhaps puts language in a particular box, where in fact language is deeply woven into the fabric of speakers’ pasts, presents, and futures.  This thought came to me in looking at my data with the families who use Polish as a home language, and particularly their literacy practices:  Polish is conceptualised as much a part of speakers’ futures as it is their past, and their everyday realities very much put Polish in the here and now.  In both families I had the pleasure of working with, parents had regular routines in supporting their children’s Polish literacy skills.  It was also clear that in developing the children’s literacy, the parents were providing the children a link to their own pasts in Poland; for example, in both families, the parents used books they had from their own childhoods.  These regular literacy routines (which also included other means of literacy engagement, such as games on the I-pad for instance), provided the families a means to capitalise on the affective component of shared literacy activities in the here and now.  And finally, one of the children in the study very much positioned Polish literacy as integral to her future success: she plans to study in Poland for university.

In one of the families, the parents and children read a very sad story about a boy who sneaked into someone’s house to play the violin and then died as a result of it (hence my giving that family the pseudonym ‘the Wieniawski family’ for the duration of the project).

These observations resonate strongly with analysis of diasporic Polish-speaking families in a new special issue of the Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development. Joanna Kedra’s article for example looks at how digital media communication an makes the everyday, intimate nature of family-making possible over distance and international borders.  Maria Obojska’s article discusses how two siblings discuss their imagined futures, with one seeing Polish as an integral part of her future, with the other not orienting more towards the majority language in his imagined future. 

Again, the point is not to say that the term ‘heritage language’ shouldn’t be used, but to question how it potentially steers us towards thinking of a particular language in the past, thus obscuring the how certain languages form the dynamic nature of past, present, and future as they entwine and unfurl over any one speaker’s lifetime.


Kędra, J. Obojska, M. and Hua, Z. (2021). Connecting Polish families in Europe: changing dynamics in language and communication practices.  Journal of Multicultural and Multilingual Development. Doi:  https://doi.org/10.1080/01434632.2021.1913499

Kędra, J. (2021).  Virtual proximity and transnational familyhood: a case study of the digital communication practices of Poles living in Finland.  Journal of Multicultural and Multilingual Development.  Doi:  https://doi.org/10.1080/01434632.2020.1839084

Obojska, M. (2021). Connections worth keeping? – Language and sociocultural practices in the imagined future of Polish teenagers in Norway. Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development.  Doi:  https://doi.org/10.1080/01434632.2021.1913175

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